Most Canadians know the sad story of Canada’s second-hand submarines. Purchased from Britain in 1998 for a suspiciously low price, the four vessels have spent most of the last fifteen years being refitted and repaired.
What most Canadians do not know is that the “Victoria-class” submarines are now entering the last decade of their service life. And since Canadian naval procurements typically take ten to fifteen years, Canada’s submarine program is destined to splutter to a stop – unless, as our new report recommends, the procurement of replacements is initiated forthwith.
The problems began in 1994, after the British decommissioned the submarines but left them in saltwater. The vessels languished for four years awaiting a buyer, and another two to six years before Canada actually took possession of them. They suffered serious corrosion and, to this day, the diving depth of HMCS Windsor is restricted because of rust damage to her hull.
In 2004, while HMCS Chicoutimi was en route to Canada, a fire broke out on board, leading to one death. The cause of the fire was seawater entering through an open hatch, which caused electrical short. The short occurred because the affected wiring had just one layer of waterproof sealant, instead of the three layers required by the construction specs.
That same year, a maintenance error destroyed the electrical system on HMCS Victoria. After the accident, the Halifax Chronicle Herald reported that the Navy spent “about $200,000 to buy old technology that mirrors what the sub’s British builders used,” equipment that one of the Navy’s own “electrical technologists” said “probably goes back to the ‘60s.” The vessel spent six years undergoing repairs.
Last year, HMCS Windsor concluded a refit that was initially scheduled to take two years, but took five. Documents obtained by the CBC reveal the reason for the delay: “Every system … has major problems, … including bad welds in the hull, broken torpedo tubes, a faulty rudder and tiles on the side of the sub that continually fall off.”
Then, last December, a defect was found in one of HMCS Windsor’s two diesel engines. The CBC reported that, as a result, the vessel’s diving depth was “severely restricted” and the Navy “forced to withdraw the sub from planned exercises off the southern U.S. coast.”
Publicly, the Navy insists the submarines can be kept in service until 2030. Behind closed hatches, the admirals must know better. They must be desperate to replace a damaged and unreliable fleet.
In 2006, the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence wrote: “The Victoria-class submarines are approaching their mid-life point. As soon as the submarines are fully operationally ready, planning for their mid-life refits and eventual replacement should begin.”
In 2010, the Department of National Defence produced a strategic plan, Horizon 2050, that anticipated “the possible re-emergence of inter-state maritime armed conflict … including the possibility that certain states will seek to deny others access to their maritime approaches.” It warned that: “Some adversaries will have the ability to employ more sophisticated area denial capabilities … using ‘high-end’ conventional or asymmetric capabilities such as advanced missiles or submarines.”
That same year, a briefing note prepared for the Chief of the Defence Staff argued for new submarines because “in the event of global tensions these relatively cheap assets will counter projection of power and hinder freedom of movement and action.”
When Defence Minister Peter MacKay was asked, in October 2011, whether the government might look at replacing Canada’s current submarines, he replied that submarines provide a “very important capability for the Canadian Forces.”
Yet curiously enough, there is no mention of submarines in the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which extends to 2041 and foresees the expenditure of $33-billion on dozens of surface vessels.
The omission cannot be excused on the basis that any new submarines would be built outside Canada and therefore fall outside the scope of the shipbuilding strategy. For two of the available options – the French-designed Scorpene and the German-designed U-214 – are already being built in countries that have purchased them.
But there are three possible explanations. First, the Harper government has already decided to acquire new submarines, and is keeping the decision quiet because of the billions of dollars that would cost.
Second, the government has decided to terminate Canada’s submarine program when the Victoria-class vessels reach the end of their service lives, and is keeping that decision quiet because of the billions of dollars it has already spent trying to rescue a failed procurement.
The third and most likely explanation is gross mismanagement of the file. And if that is the case, the lack of a plan will result in the end of Canada’s submarine program – through neglect and obsolescence, rather than design.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Stewart Webb is a Visiting Fellow at the Rideau Institute and a Research Associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. They are the authors of a report entitled "That Sinking Feeling," published Tuesday by the CCPA.
This op-ed was originally published in the Globe and Mail.